This week we are hearing from a partnership between the University of Louisville and Jefferson County Public Schools. Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective.
This post is by Michèle Foster, the partnership’s Executive Director.
Many researchers have speculated about and conceptualized the process of creating and maintaining research-practice partnerships (RPPs) and pointed out numerous challenges and insights. In this blog, I describe some of the struggles and successes of building an RPP in Louisville, Kentucky between my university - the University of Louisville - and Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS). I’ll focus on the three greatest challenges I encountered: limited resources, bureaucratic structures, and forging communication pathways.
Inspiration and Initial Planning
A few years ago, while on faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC), several school district representatives and I participated in the first conference that led to the creation of the National Network of Education Research-Practice Partnerships (NNERPP). This conference fueled my interest in RPPs and convinced me of the value and benefits of RPP work. So inspired was I that last spring, after accepting a new position at the University of Louisville, I asked Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) to join me in attending that year’s NNERPP Annual Forum. Energized by the conference, we started collaborating immediately after our return to start an RPP and join NNERPP.
The first study we decided to conduct together was a study on the summer and afterschool programs in JCPS, many of which are part of the BLOCS (Building Louisville’s Out-of-School Time Coordinated System) Initiative. We wanted to investigate how JCPS students benefit from participating in these programs. We felt the stars were aligning when a graduate student decided to study the BLOCS Initiative in Jefferson County and asked me to serve on his committee.
Our RPP work had started to take shape. However, we encountered numerous challenges.
Initially, we had zero funding, yet decided to move forward by designing a small pilot study to take a closer look at 3 of the JCPS summer and afterschool programs. In order to then design a bigger study to get a more comprehensive picture of how these programs benefit JCPS students, securing funding and getting IRB approval were the first priorities. Obtaining funding did not come easily. Either our proposal did not align with the requirements of the specific small grants, or reviewers disagreed on the significance of our work. We recently sent a letter of intent to a major foundation and are currently preparing an application to another foundation.
We also struggled with limited resources in terms of staff. Graduate Research Assistants (GRAs) are appointed in early summer, before my role at the university began, so I operated without a designated GRA for the entire year. Not having any research assistance stifled the progress we were able to make on the research.
Bureaucracy was another challenge I encountered early on. Getting IRB approval from the University was cumbersome and took longer than anticipated due to complex bureaucratic structures within the university, though I was luckily helped tremendously by one individual in the IRB office. While frustrating, these challenges also inspired me to find solutions: It occurred to me that IRB workshops would be beneficial to everyone seeking approval, as well as to the IRB office to clarify procedures. My suggestion was taken up by the College’s Research Office and the workshop became one of the most well-attended of the College’s offerings.
There are a couple of lessons here: First, while universities enthusiastically promote research, academics face opaque and complex bureaucratic structures that can significantly inhibit research efforts. These bureaucratic structures are difficult to understand due to lack of clear communication about procedures and processes. Second, problems encountered by one person in an organization are rarely confined to that individual but experienced by others as well. Solutions to these problems thus benefit many, and it may be up to us to generate these.
Forging Communication Pathways
My initial contact with JCPS was through the Diversity, Equity, and Poverty Programs Division. It quickly became obvious that unless more JCPS units became aware of the partnership, it had little chance of success. To make this happen, I attended a JCPS district office meeting about social and emotional issues where I hoped to meet more JCPS practitioners. I was able to make some valuable contacts, including the Chief Academic Officer and someone from the District Research Office who was interested in the work.
After these initial successes, I experienced some setbacks in the communication pathways I thought I had forged. A few weeks ago, the district’s superintendent announced her resignation effective July 1. On the heels of that announcement, the Chief Academic Officer I had just started building a promising relationship with was chosen as the next superintendent of Birmingham City Schools. Such change and uncertainty in leadership complicates our partnership’s efforts to build relationships with key decisionmakers.
I am, however, convinced that we will survive the upheaval and our fledgling partnership will move forward.
In fact, just as I was about to submit the blog entry, I had a meeting with someone who was involved in educational research in Louisville for many years. She not only expressed an interest in our work and wants to become part of our RPP, but she will also promote it to other major players in the Louisville educational research community and see if they will join the effort.
Overall, I learned that setbacks are often followed by new successes and that challenges always offer an opportunity for new ideas.
The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.